Rutger Bregman: The west is suffering a crisis of imagination

REVIEW: Utopia for Realists has refreshing ideas for a better society, but don't expect the book to provide an economic blueprint.

by Simon Caulkin
Last Updated: 02 Mar 2017

This book, by young Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, is a riot of forgotten stories (in 1970 US President Richard Nixon came within a hair's breadth of implementing a universal basic income); counterintuitive propositions ('The big reason people are poor is that they don't have enough money, and it shouldn't come as any surprise that giving them money is a great way to reduce that problem'); and unlikely facts (someone on the poverty line in the US - or UK - is in the top 14% of the world's income bracket and thus part of the global elite).

This, plus a liberal sprinkling of spirited quotes and a first-rate translation from the Dutch, makes Bregman's book, which had a big impact in the Netherlands when it came out last year, an enjoyable and provocative read. But be warned: if you expect a linear, detailed economic case for 'a universal basic income, open borders, and a 15-hour workweek', as you might from reviews, and the title, of a previous edition of the book in English, you'll be disappointed.

Bregman's purpose is different. As he sees it, borrowing from Francis Fukuyama, the West has reached an 'end of history' moment - a bleak land of plenty where we are so obsessed with growth, hotness and consumerism that we don't even know how well off we are. The real crisis of our times and his generation ('pampered', not jilted, as others have complained), is 'not that we don't have it good, or even that we might be worse off later on. No, the real crisis is that we can't come up with anything better.'

So treat his ideas - a new measure to replace GDP and an end to the obsession with paid work, as well as the big three mentioned above - as purposeful thought experiments. His chief aim is to let some fresh air and ambition into the crimped, reductive thinking that (for example) sees the EU just as a narrow nexus of material and trading relationships; or humans as the rational utility maximisers of Chicago economics.

Time and again, yesterday's out-of-the-question (an end to slavery or child labour, universal suffrage) becomes the next day's normal: the key is to be thinking it when the consensus breaks apart. 'Only a crisis ... produces real change,' said Milton Friedman. 'When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.'

In this attempt to enlarge the range of the politically thinkable, Bregman mostly succeeds. Take the chapter on open borders. In the era of Brexit and the Mexican wall, the notion of frictionless migration is, of course, beyond impossible. Yet once he has taken you through the history of borders (lines on paper), passports (recent), human development (inseparable from migration), and the busy global movement of everything else (capital, goods, information), his characterisation of the current situation as a kind of apartheid seems both justified and intolerable.

Twenty-five years after the - universally applauded - fall of the Berlin wall, barriers are sprouting everywhere like barbed-wire nettles. Yet free migrations and open borders are the greatest economic lubricant known to man. What if ...?

Bregman is also good on our thinking about poverty, which has barely advanced beyond the poorhouse and debtors' prison. The poor are endlessly resourceful in the daily struggle to survive, and research shows that bad choices in more strategic matters are mostly the result of poverty rather than fecklessness. Poverty, like torture, addles the wits, which makes it similarly unproductive, clamping people in dependence and demeaning both them and the people who inflict it.

He demonstrates how welfare states, which are managed to minimise cost rather than for positive purpose, become their opposite - regimes of surveillance and punishment rather than a safety net. Studies show that investing directly in poor people offers double or triple the returns of spending on palliatives like police, social work and the courts.

Not all his big ideas are quite so compelling, however, and in some places the structure of the book shows signs of last-minute tinkering - for a foreign audience? Slightly unsettlingly, Bregman admits that he himself might not be immune to the cognitive dissonance - relying on 'alternative facts' rather than changing one's deepest convictions when faced by disconfirming evidence - that is one of the biggest obstacles to real change.

Nonetheless, as angry populism invades the ideas vacuum left by the exhaustion of today's mainstream political currents, there's no denying the topicality of Bregman's wake-up call. If his book doesn't cause you to challenge at least one of your assumptions about what is and isn't politically thinkable, you may have reached a personal post-historical phase yourself.

Simon Caulkin is a management writer and an ex-editor of MT

Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There, by Rutger Bregman, is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)

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